A night of terror on Lake Mead

Three anglers went fishing only to spend the night in the lake

Claire Whitley and George Robledo have a fishing story for the ages.

Photo by Don Martin.

Claire Whitley and George Robledo have a fishing story for the ages.

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Heading to Virgin Canyon. Notice that Claire and George have on their personal flotation devices.

It was a fishing trip that started out like hundreds of others I’ve done on Lake Mead over the past 12 or so years.

But before this trip would end, it would be one that neither my friends nor I will ever forget.

It was Thursday evening, July 26, and I was going out on a fun fishing trip with a couple of friends of mine.

My first fellow angler was Kingman resident George Robledo, a neighbor who lives in the foothills of the Hualapai Mountains. George and I have been friends for just a short time, and he has gone fishing with me just one time before.

My next fellow angler was a name you all might know. She is Claire Whitely, the news editor for the Kingman Daily Miner.

I had asked Claire to go on a fishing trip as a thank you of sorts. Claire is the one who lays out my Outdoor Page every week at the Miner and has been doing so for just over a year. I think she has done a good job with my copy, and I wanted to show her my appreciation. It was going to be her first fishing trip in Arizona after moving here from Idaho over a year ago.

It was just going to be a night of fishing that would result in hopefully both of them taking home a lot of fresh, good eating striper and catfish fillets.

This night, I utilized the boat I call Striper Hunters. I do have a Skeeter bass boat I use occasionally when I have just one fishing friend or when I want to concentrate on fishing for largemouth or smallmouth bass. The Striper Hunters boat holds more people and equipment, so I opted to use that 21-foot jet boat.

The first order of business for me on every trip is what I call, “Jacob’s Checklist,” which is a list of things I need to do to make the boat ready to go out.

On that list are rods/reels, two anchors, oars, lights, chum, bait and maybe the most important item, life jackets – or personal flotation devices. Ask anyone who has been on one of my trips and they will tell you that I absolutely insist that everyone who goes on my boat has to wear a life jacket that is properly fitted for them. A PFD that doesn’t fit is really no help at all in a survival situation.

The next item of business for me in my pretrip planning is to look at the weather report. I have two sources of information that I regularly check, The report said a 1 percent chance of rain at 8 p.m., but after that, no rain, and winds of 8-10 miles per hour, which is perfect for where I fish in Virgin Canyon.

When George arrived we finished up loading the jet boat.

Claire arrived, and we decided to have dinner at the Crow’s Next.

When we got back to the house, I checked that both Claire and George had valid Arizona fishing licenses.

We then finished loading up the boat with ice and bait, took a pretrip photo, and off to South Cove we went.

When we arrived at the lake, it looked perfect! The water was flat and calm.

The sun was starting to set in the west, and it was a beautiful sunset.

We started moving toward my desired fishing spot, and the V-6 powered Chevy engine was purring like a kitten and was running great. In 27 minutes, we arrived at Schleeter Rock and tied up.

After getting all of the lights hooked up, we started fishing. Claire got a couple of quick bites but missed the strikes.

George, who was using two new rods-and-reels he had just bought, was having the same luck.

I had two rods-and-reels out and was having better luck. In a short time, I had three stripers and two channel cats on ice.

The weather starts to change

I noticed that the wind started to come up, which in of itself is not unusual, as it will normally shift back and forth from east to west in the canyon and will increase or decrease throughout the night.

I did see and hear a rumble of thunder and some lightning in the area of Temple Bar, which is about seven miles from where we were at.

I made a comment to my friends about the situation, saying I didn’t like seeing the lightening.

I wondered where this storm had come from. After all, the weather report made no mention of thunderstorms that evening.

A while later, I got a call.

It was from my brother, Gary, who was coming home from Phoenix. He knew I was out fishing that night with Claire and George.

“Hey bro, you see the weather report?” he said.

He went on to say that a major thunderstorm, with winds from 50-60 miles per hour were headed my way from Temple Bar and was going to hit South Cove and Meadview.

“You better get out of there,” he said.

With that admonition, and even though the thunder and lightning appeared to be going north from the Temple Bar area, I made the decision to head back to South Cove.

My first command was, “Claire, get the life jackets out!”

Once we had our jackets on, we quickly pulled in the lights, untied the front anchor and pulled it in. Then I pulled in the back anchor and started the engine.

It was time to leave.

The trip down the canyon was uneventful and soon we were in the main lake basin headed back toward South Cove. As a preventative measure I turned on the manual bilge pump even though the boat is equipped an automatic bilge pump that comes on when a certain amount of water is in the bottom of the boat.

Seeing that the wind was coming from the west, I decided to stay on the west side of the lake while heading north, paralleling the Nevada shoreline.

Lightening flashed all around us. At one point a huge bolt hit the ground just 400 yards from us! I was blinded momentarily by the flash, and the loud boom of thunder hurt my ears.

It was then that I said my first prayer, “Please Lord, don’t let this boat get struck by lightning.”

I can see the flashing red buoy light of South Cove!

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South Cove on the evening of July 26, 2018. Nice and calm and flat.

We were headed north along the Nevada shoreline when I saw the red buoy light that marks the entrance to South Cove. It is the navigation light I always use to guide me into the launch area. I could plainly see the red flashing buoy, which if there are high waves, you will only see occasionally. Now was the time to head across the lake directly towards the light.

In 10 minutes we would be safely inside of South Cove.

I turned the boat eastward, and it didn’t take long to see and feel that we encountering some large waves. I cut the engine back to 12 mph, keeping the nose up as we rode at an angle over the top of the waves toward our destination.

I could feel spray coming in from the back of the boat as we slowly and methodically went over the top of the waves. I could see the red flashing buoy looming larger and knew we were getting closer and closer to South Cove.

Then the unexpected happened.

CAPSIZED!

Suddenly, and without any warning, I heard the boat motor start to sputter. From the way it was acting, I felt that water had somehow got into the tank.

When the boat stopped, the bow went down and a huge wave broke over the bow, putting a lot of water inside the boat.

Then a second wave hit, and the boat was filled with water and down we went.

A serious water emergency had been created in less than 15 seconds!

The boat went almost straight up then quickly sank below the now onrushing waves. I had the steering wheel in my hands, but then the water literally sucked off my eyeglasses as we quickly started sinking,

Realizing what was happening, I let go of the steering wheel and immediately came to the surface, and saw George and Claire.

I can’t describe the shock and terror I saw on their faces, and I immediately told both of them, “Hold onto the boat!” It was then I said my next prayer.

The time was 10:30 p.m.

The boat was still floating, but only the bow was above the surface. Every time a wave hit – and some were over 4 feet high – the bow would drop under the surface and then it would pop back up.

We all grabbed the top of the bow and held on. More prayers were said.

It was the beginning of a very terrifying water emergency, one that would start a chain of events that would determine if we survived this ordeal or not.

Help is NOT coming!

As we were crossing the basin, I could see that there was a camp on the southern shore of Sandy Point.

I could see lights along the beach, and at one point I saw a spotlight sweep and then actually lock on to us. This was just a very few minutes before we capsized.

After we had capsized, we were being tossed around by 4 foot waves that slammed us into the hull of the boat as we drifted in a northerly direction toward Sandy Point.

I hoped that those on the shore could hear our pleas for help. I even had George fire off a series of three rounds from his 9mm pistol. Three of basically anything is the international signal for distress. And despite the fact that throughout the night George would end up firing four series of these emergency signals, the folks on the beach never responded.

I should also note at one point I noticed the spotlight up the beach as if to provide light for someone going to a restroom. Then the lights in the camp went out for good.

Note that one series of three evenly spaced shots might not get folks’ attention at this lake.

Two series of shots, however, should start to get folks worried, but at the third and fourth series of shots throughout the night it’s time to call for help or go out and see what’s wrong.

While these folks could have no doubt helped us, it was another young couple who could have saved us a lot of suffering, but for whatever reason chose not to do so.

Remember I said that we capsized at 10:30 p.m.? How did I know that? Simple. My LG cellphone that was in my pants pocket was protected by a Pelican case.

While the phone would end being immersed for the entire time I was in the lake, it didn’t completely quit working. I couldn’t make a call out, but it showed me the time every time I powered it up!

It was about 11:45 p.m. when we saw tail lights in the upper end of the South Cove parking lot. I instructed George to fire off another three rounds and when he did, we saw the car turn around and drove to one the points that are located south of South Cove that many shore-fish from.

When they arrived out on a point, they shined the car headlights right on us. We could see people walking in front of the headlights and we all started yelling. When I tell you that a 22-year-old news editor can scream very loudly, believe me. Claire did a magnificent job of trying to communicate with those folks.

After yelling that we were capsized with three people in the water and to call 911, they abruptly turned off their headlights. Claire again started screaming to leave their lights on, and they did. At least for a while.

Then around 2 a.m. the lights went out.

When Claire said she was getting cold we immediately went into the system we teach in Arizona Hunter Education to help a person survive a water emergency. It is called the HELP, which stands for HEAT ESCAPE LESSENING POSITION.

In this survival system people can cross their legs and arms, and huddle together as close as you can with others. Besides a great system for preventing or lessening heat loss, it is good for morale. More prayers.

Several times during the ordeal we did this until we warmed up. Fortunately, the water that night was probably in the 80s and the risk of hypothermia was lessened. Had we been in cold water, despite us having on the PFDs, we would not have survived as long as we did.

Lights out and no one has been called!

Despite our frantic pleas to turn the lights back on, those two young people on the bank did not comply. We later learned that they had gone to sleep.

At this point, the lake’s churning, turbulent waters were starting to calm down, but we were drifting with the wind. We first went north, then northwest towards Jackass Flats, then the wind started blowing from the north and pushing us south.

At around 3 a.m.,it actually settled down enough so we could plainly hear the cows on the shore south of South Cove. We could also hear coyotes on the bank howling. Claire, George and I continued to yell out our frantic pleas to call 911, but it didn’t appear anyone was responding to them.

It was at this time that I felt I needed to get everyone’s mind off of our precarious predicament, so I told George and Claire that we were going to tell stories to pass the time until we were rescued.

I led off and told of my drinking exploits while in the Army (been clean and sober for about 35 years now). Then Claire told us about some of her drinking adventures in college. George didn’t have any drinking stories, but told us of stories when they trained with Special Forces troops while in the Army.

Again these stories were designed taking our mind off the situation we were in at the time.

At around 04:30 a.m., the car’s lights came back on. It was quiet. I yelled out, “If you can hear me, flash your lights.” The lights flashed and I said, “If you have called 911, flash your lights!” Again the lights were flashed.

Daylight was coming soon, but we had been in the water for almost 7 hours clinging to a rope that was tied to the bow hook of the boat.

As it started to get light, I noticed that the bow of the boat was starting to sink lower and lower into the lake and that it was not coming back up. I tried to pull it up, but it just kept slowly sinking.

It was painful to watch as a boat I’ve had for many years that had taken hundreds of people out on some very memorable fishing trips was sinking down to the bottom of Lake Mead.

When the boat was out of sight I said, “Well, boys and girls, it’s time to go for a swim.”

And with that we all started toward the launch at South Cove that by now we could plainly see. The only issue was it was over one-half mile away!

Claire being a lot younger (22) and full of adrenalin was swimming much faster than George and I, who are both in our 60s.

I instructed Claire to stay in sight of us as we flipped over on our backs and started heading for the shore utilizing the back floating position, which is way more efficient in covering distance than doing a breast stroke or dog paddling.

While we were swimming George told me he saw a truck pulling a boat heading down the mountain.

I yelled at the two people on shore that a truck was coming down the hill and to meet them at the South Cove dock. “Tell them there are three people in the water that need to be rescued,” I said. I thought I heard, “OK” but without my glasses, I couldn’t tell if the car started to move or not.

The truck came to the water’s edge and it appeared a single person unloaded the boat and got it to the dock. Then he walked to his truck and drove it up where he parked his truck and trailer close to mine.

He then walked back down to his boat, got into it and started up the engine. It was only then that I noticed what appeared to be a white car turn onto the upper launch ramp and head down to the water’s edge.

The boater obviously did not see Claire or me even though he was only about 100 yards away. Claire and I both kicked and splashed but somehow the boater did not slow down and drove north toward South Bay.

We had no other option than to continue to swim for shore. At one point I heard Claire make a comment about not being rude. Seems the young lady on the shore had asked her if she wanted some water, then asked her if she wanted a beer!

I decided that I would not swim to the dock or launch, but rather to the rocky bluffs on the north side of the entrance to South Cove. I thought I could get out of the lake there and climb up the mountain and then walk to the parking lot.

When I exited the water, I was weak and shaking slightly. I sat on a flat rock and did an assessment of my situation. It was then I noticed a small pool of blood under my left hand. I looked at my arm and saw blood was running down from my elbow.

I tried to stand up, but couldn’t, so I started crawling up the gravel and rock bank on my hands and knees. It was slow going, and I was becoming very thirsty.

Near the top I found a thick stick that I felt would help me keep my balance. When I got to the top of the mountain I stopped on a huge, white, flat rock, I saw George in the parking lot down below. First thing I did was ask about Claire. “She is ok,” George said. He said he was ok, too.

He told me I couldn’t come off the mountain at that spot, as it was too steep.

I told him I need some water and I needed it bad.

Then as I continued my trek east on the mountain top, I saw a trail of blood on the white rock I had just been standing on. I thought to myself, “Well, if they have to look for me, they can just follow the blood trail.”

I walked several hundred yards more when I saw a lady coming up the side of the hill. I didn’t recognize her at first as I had no glasses, but I finally recognized that my “angel” was Kingman resident Jeri Short, and she had a bottle of water with her. When I thanked her for climbing up the mountain to bring me water, she smiled and said, “Not too bad for a 70-year-old!”

Jeri held onto my arm as I first slid, then slowly walked off the mountain to the parking lot where Claire and George were.

With them was Kingman resident Jimmy Short, Jeri’s husband.

Water and food were brought out by the Short’s and another man who I didn’t recognize, along with his son, brought us Gatorade and cold water.

This unknown man came back a short time later with my large igloo ice chest, which he had found floating in the lake.

A ranger from the Lake Mead National Recreation Area, Warren Schlesinger, arrived by boat and came up to where we were sitting.

After exchanging formalities, I asked him what time the LMNRA had been contacted about our situation. He said, “We got a call at 4:30 a.m. We were told three people were in a boat and were yelling for help. Nothing was mentioned about the boat being capsized or that there were three people in the water.”

Schlesinger also said that he had come from Henderson Nevada, with his boat that he launched at Temple Bar and then drove up to South Cove. “I didn’t even use my lights and siren when responding.”

I told Officer Schlesinger about the actions of the two people on the bank and on Sandy Point. He said he would go talk to them.

The Shorts took us back to Meadview where we waited for spare keys to the vehicles, which had to brought from Kingman.

Later on I got a call from Officer Schlesinger, who said the people camped on Sandy Point said they never heard or saw us, while the people on the point closer to us were “two young kids.” He said they denied knowing we were in distress until 4:30 a.m. when they called it in.

In the meantime, the boat is resting in about 200 feet of water north of the red flashing buoy with about $6,000 worth of equipment in it.

I ended up having to have surgery on my left elbow due to a bone spur erupting through my skin and the elbow becoming infected. That’s where the blood was coming from.

I eventually spent six days in KRMC and now am home with a Wound Vac in my elbow and an infusion pump constantly pumping antibiotics into my body to fight the infection.

I’m happy to report that both Claire and George survived the ordeal with no apparent injuries and are recovering.

Both of them remained cool, calm and collected and never panicked during this situation. There could be many other endings to this story, and almost all of them would be bad.

I’m thankful to the good Lord above for keeping his hands on us during this terrifying experience.

And God willing next spring I’ll be back out there and ready to go fishing!

We had faced the worst that Mother Nature could throw at us and we had survived despite several people having the opportunity to help us but did not.

And at the end of the day surviving this emergency is really all that matters.